Skip to content
The Innovation Process
All Enabling Factors

Get the best from your innovation team

The people working on your innovation team are critical. Your team needs to be focused on results, but they also need to be tolerant of ambiguity and complexity.

They need to be agile, able to change direction (known as ‘pivoting’) and to absorb learning, and they need to be comfortable with this way of working.

During your innovation journey, you will find the skills, experience and aptitudes required of the team may often need to change. The key is to ensure you try to maintain as much diversity as you can. You will also need to try and ensure that your team members have a good balance and understanding of innovation mindsets.

“There was a lack of ownership of the project by local staff, due to high staff turnover. We also over-anticipated knowledge and understanding of accountability mechanisms. In hindsight one of the solutions to these challenges could have been an advance assessment with the local team.” Emily Tomkys Valteri, Oxfam GB (interview)

Get the right balance of people

Ian Gray (2018), adapted from Gray and McClure (2015), provides a useful typology of the balance of people you might need as you move along the innovation process. These are Pirates, Privateers and Petty Officers:

Pirates are ‘mavericks’ and entrepreneurs who play by their own rules. In Apple, the pirate flag is synonymous with a Steve Jobs memo that stated “it is better to be a pirate than to join the navy”, which led to the Mac development team hanging a pirate flag on their building.

When are they most useful?

  • Recognition
  • Invention

In the early stages of an innovation, you require your team to be dominated by pirates (but not completely filled with them). You need their inventiveness and rebellious attitude. These are the people who can reimagine the future and are unwilling to accept the status quo. Pirates are essential in the invention stage of an innovation.

Privateers in centuries past were essentially pirates, who were allowed to operate legally by the navy, as long as they focussed their efforts on attacking enemy ships. Privateers possess some of the characteristics of the lone maverick but are aligned to the organisation.

When are they most useful?

  • Pilot
  • Scale

As you move from piloting into scaling, your innovation needs to start integrating with the wider organisation and with other organisations. It needs to show how it is aligned. You need privateers who know how to deal with the petty officers carrying out business as usual, but can also keep the ‘pirate’ flame of the original innovation vision alive.

Petty Officers are commissioned officers who follow standard operating procedures and the rules of engagement. They are very good at working with a structured approach, and they aim to perfect given processes and ways of working. They are crucial for the stability of an organisation.

When are they most useful?

  • Scale (but need to be engaged in every stage)

You need petty officers as ‘allies’ to help smooth the pathway for your project. They also offer keen insights into how the problem is currently being addressed, and how your innovation can fit into an organisation’s existing policies, processes and operations. Petty Officers are critical when your innovation seeks to embed itself as business as usual.

The key is to have as diverse a team as you can in terms of skills, experience, gender, age, ethnicity etc. In the early days there may only be a few on the team, and they will therefore have to be able to multi-task and take up different roles as and when required.

There are numerous tools to assess teams, some of which you need to be qualified to use. A good tool is Belbin’s Team Roles. Unfortunately, you do need to pay to use this tool, but it can be administered by anybody. If you have the funds, it can be well worth going through this process in order to understand each other’s work preferences better.

Manage staff turnover

Many humanitarian staff move from one disaster to another and can be on call for the next emergency response. This means that you may find that your team, or teams you are collaborating with, lose members and have to recruit new members on a fairly regular basis.

This can be a difficult process as, according to psychologist Bruce Tuckman (no date), most teams go through a four-step process of Forming (bringing the team together), Storming (when the team has a lot of friction as they get used to working with each other and have different ideas and approaches), Norming (when the team starts to settle down and develop their own ways of working with each other), and finally Performing (where the team starts to deliver high performance).

It can be difficult to keep the same team together, so the key is to work on ways of speeding up the process of team development.

Provide an enabling environment for your teams

Create space and environments for making connections. If your team is not remote, be sure to create the time and space for them to meet each other and to meet others in your organisation and externally. Visit other teams, visit other organisations, socialise together. Create the time and space to make connections. Collaboration needs informal settings to be embedded.

Face-to-face is critical for good collaboration. Many humanitarian innovations are developed by remote teams, sometimes working across partner organisations. While these teams can function very well in delivering specific tasks, for breakthroughs on problems, agreement on strategy, team building and resolving issues that may be allowed to fester, face-to-face time is still critical. Try and budget for as many of the team as possible to meet on a regular basis. This can seem excessively expensive and time consuming, but it is money well invested to make sure that your innovation progresses.

Avoid common traps

There are three key common traps that innovation teams can fall into, and it’s good to be aware of these so that you can better avoid or anticipate them.

Group think

This is when consensus in a team goes unchallenged, and it has been identified as the cause of numerous failings (Janis, 1972). To address the potential for group think, it is good to have external ‘critical friends’ who can provide an objective view on key decisions and issues that you face.

Dependency

This is when a team with a dominant, entrepreneurial leader starts to overestimate the leader’s abilities and underestimate the team’s abilities. If the leader chooses to leave, or is forced out, their absence can cause significant disruption to the team and damage the reputation of the project.

Fight or flight

This is when a team is developing solutions to problems that their organisation doesn’t want to recognise or deal with, or is developing solutions that are challenging the organisational model. It can create an ‘us versus them’ culture with two potential outcomes: either the team chooses to ‘fight’, which can be perceived as undermining the rest of the organisation and cause serious strain on internal relationships; or it chooses ‘flight’, pursuing a break with the wider organisation, (referred to as a ‘spin-off) which the ‘parent’ organisation may not want, or have the experience to support well.

For both of these issues, the main antidote is to ensure that you are engaging end-users and gatekeepers to reduce friction with the wider organisation. It is also good to just ask the questions: How are we doing as a group? Are we displaying any signs of dependency, fight or flight?

De Bono outlines how the team, or a team member can wear one of six ‘thinking hats’ to discuss issues and problems. His ‘black hat’ is the key method for addressing group think. Using this hat, you become the ‘devil’s advocate’, assigned to spot problems, difficulties and dangers for a proposed course of action.

Track decision-making

There are lots of communication and work management tools that are available to teams which help with managing yourselves across different parts of an organisation, or even different parts of the world. However, the key issue often is understanding decisions and why they are made. A simple tool, called a decision log, can be used to help keep track of this in your team.

The Decision Log is a table that shows decisions that have been made, why they have been made, who made them, what follow-up actions are required, and who should be informed. By recording these things, it is made easier for people who were not part of the decision-making process to realise that a decision has been made and to understand the rationale for it.

It is also useful for those who might come along later to understand why certain decisions were made, and whether the rationale for the decision still remains the same. This is critical in enabling a team to resist doing things that are no longer useful, just because “it is the way we have always done it.”